Midwest_newbie

PI doesn't think I'm excited about work, gave me ~5 weeks to change his mind. I'm freaking out.

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So Thursday the PI pulled me into him office and said that he doesn't feel that I am excited about the research and he is worried about the fit. He mainly just kept saying that he doesn't think I am excited about the work. But I have mentioned several times that I like the work and it's the kind of project I wanted to work on in graduate school. When I specifically asked him what he meant by excitement and what he was basing this on, he danced around the question and refused to give me a straight answer (according to a previous grad student in the lab, he is notorious for avoiding conflict until he cannot stand it anymore, also known to never give a straight answer). He basically gave me an ultimatum: I have thru the end of the year to change his mind. He also told me that he has felt this way for a while (but is just now bringing it up?)

This PI and I don't talk much, we're both busy. We see each other at lab meeting once a week for an hour or less, but he doesn't want to meet more often. But he also said he doesn't want this to be a thing where I'm just worried about churning out loads of data and nothing else (when I specifically asked what he meant by that, no answer, again). But then he says that he doesn't think I'm committed and that grad school is about doing lots of reading and becoming an expert and going to conferences and being an expert on [project]. Then we proceeded to have a conversation about what is already out in the literature (not much, and nothing using our model), and nada, no comments from him, blank look on his face (he’s old, and sometimes I think he’s losing his mind, he’ll ask questions repeatedly. He has asked the same questions about my results three separate times, takes notes each time, but then always comes back with the same question, honestly it’s kind of like talking to a slow child, I have to walk him through everything, every time). He also, in a VERY roundabout way, questioned whether grad school was the right place for me, but he wouldn't come out and say it; Again, when I questioned him directly, no answer. 

I talked to older grad students in the department (I'm in the middle of my second year) and one said that some advisors are just like that and I shouldn’t freak out, this grad student had a similar talk with her advisor early in her career (she’s about to defend). Another one said if I really like the work, prove it to him, otherwise cut ties and run. A first year student (who is older and non-traditional like me) said New-Professor is looking for three grad students, and while his work is interesting, New-Professor would basically be training me from scratch and I feel uncomfortable with that, meaning a complete burden with nothing to offer in return. But first-year said with New-professor’s teaching philosophy he would be completely okay with that, and that I would just be expected to learn quickly (which is fine, I have some experience in this sort of thing from previous jobs, and coworkers/bosses from these previous jobs wrote me letters that got me into grad school).

Sorry for this wall of text and if you’re still with me I am begging for some advice.

 

Is this a sinking ship, should I run now? I really like this project and I’m really disappointed by this PI. Initially I liked it because he was laid-back and didn’t micromanage things like some of the PIs in the department and also a previous boss I worked for liked to micromanage everything, she was fired because production was non-existent because of her. This is why I wanted a lab that wasn’t micromanaged.

Any advice for dealing with this type of person? Usually I’m really good at reading people and figuring out how to handle them, but not with this guy.

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At this point, your PI isn't going to change. If you decide to stick with him you'll be in for much the same communication style and interactions. Perhaps they're uncomfortable saying hard truths ("you aren't working hard enough/you don't know enough"), or perhaps they only have this vague sense that something isn't right and it isn't based on anything concrete. Is he used to dealing with non-traditional students? That might unfortunately be part of his problem (his problem, not yours!).

My translation of what your PI wants is for you to be more proactive. Not just saying "X doesn't work" and stopping there, but giving your own suggestions about what to do next in your meetings. Not just asking for advice, but offering 1-2 suggestions of your own and seeing which one he likes the most. He doesn't want you to mindlessly churn out data, but to work smart and explore the literature in depth.

These excessively non-confrontational, indirect people are fairly common in academia. I can't give you much advice about whether you should stick it out or change labs other than what I've said above (he's not going to change). It's unlikely that you can get the perfect combination of great PI + exciting project + ideal management/communication style, so you need to think carefully about what's really the most important thing for you.

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UPDATE: so PI is okay with me doing a thesis master's but if I want to do a phd I need to find a new lab. I'm in a small department so finding a new lab is close to if not impossible. 

Unfortunately an MS doesn't get me very far career-wise. I never wanted a job in academia so I am looking at other options. I'm leaning toward patent agent and maybe law school, as I was looking at policy jobs if I go the phd route. 

I just don't know what to do. I don't want to teach high school, which is about the only thing I can do with an MS. 

 

Does anyone here have any advice or suggestions?

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In my (admittedly limited) experience, if a supervisor asks the same question repeatedly, it simply means that you haven't given the "right" answer the first time around and they are waiting for you to spot your own mistake. Quite a passive-aggressive tactic, I know, but unfortunately quite common.

You are in this program because you wanted to get a PhD, right? I think that switching to law school is a step too far; it might be just a temporary hiccup. Switching PIs is not as uncommon as people think, but at the same time it means that a lot of work has been wasted. It's also not a great thing to have on your CV; lots of future employers in academia might look askance at that sort of thing.

It's not going to be a popular opinion on here, but I would say that you should stick to the lab, beg him to let you finish the PhD, and in the meantime generate data at a furious rate. If he's adamant, maybe you could talk to other members of your advisory committee (if you have a good relationship with them and they can be relied upon not to tell tales). Perhaps a chat with a friendly postdoc might help too.

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55 minutes ago, quickstudy said:

It's not going to be a popular opinion on here, but I would say that you should stick to the lab, beg him to let you finish the PhD, and in the meantime generate data at a furious rate. If he's adamant, maybe you could talk to other members of your advisory committee (if you have a good relationship with them and they can be relied upon not to tell tales). Perhaps a chat with a friendly postdoc might help too.

I respectfully disagree. He has explicitly said he doesn't want the OP as a PhD student; a PhD is a long process with its inherent ups and down even on the best of terms, and starting out with someone who's already said he doesn't think you're good enough can't lead to anything good.

OP -- it sounds like the best course of action if you want to stay in your program might be to switch to working with New-Professor. Trust NP to know who he wants in his lab, and don't worry about not being able to give anything in return. You'll learn what you need to learn and start producing work soon enough. If NP is good with that, you should be, too. If you have compatible work styles and you have his support, I think that's a much better solution than begging someone who's said they don't want to be your advisor anymore to stay on. The MS option sounds unappealing, so staying in the PhD program some other way seems like the way to go. If you can't stay in your program, maybe transferring (often, reapplying from scratch) is the only way to go. Law school is obviously another option, but that's quite a leap from where you are now. Maybe you should look at more local solutions first. 

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5 hours ago, fuzzylogician said:

I respectfully disagree. He has explicitly said he doesn't want the OP as a PhD student; a PhD is a long process with its inherent ups and down even on the best of terms, and starting out with someone who's already said he doesn't think you're good enough can't lead to anything good.

Of course you're right. Having said that, I still think that the OP would be well advised to endeavour to end the relationship with the PI on cordial terms. This might involve completing the thesis MS - the OP can take their project to a logical conclusion, get a degree and some valuable experience, and avoid any awkward career gaps.

The OP has also not actually discussed the possibility of switching labs with the New Professor, and honestly speaking I don't know how enthusiastic he would be about taking on a student who has been "rejected" by one of his colleagues. Speaking to first year students is only going to get the OP so far; they need to communicate directly with the NP. If the NP is willing to take on the OP as a student, that's great, of course; really the best case scenario.

I think both of us agree that going to law school would be an unnecessarily drastic step for the OP.

 

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6 hours ago, quickstudy said:

I think both of us agree that going to law school would be an unnecessarily drastic step for the OP.

I think we can agree on the following: 

- Staying with someone who doesn't want to have you as advisor for an entire PhD is ill-advised.

- However, it is best to part on good terms. It remains to be seen what that means in this case. It may mean sticking through the MS or it may not. But that consideration should be taken into account either way. Other important considerations are the OP's well-being and his/her next steps, once there is a decision about what those are. 

- If New Prof is an option, of course the OP has to talk to him directly and it's not enough to rely on rumors you hear from first-year students. However, I don't think that talking about being "rejected" by another professor is useful here. It's more appropriate to think of this as a classic case of incompatibility between advisor and advisee. That doesn't imply that the OP can't do good work, or at least that's not what the OP writes in his/her post. Again, I would approach NP in good faith and let him decide if he thinks there is potential for an advising relationship there or not. Don't overthink it and don't anticipate his considerations without letting him run his own calculations. You have to be your own champion; if you don't have your best interests at heart, who will?

- Going to law school would be a drastic and unnecessary step at this point.

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UPDATE: I've had a couple of meetings with the PI in regards to discussing what to do for thesis MS and timeline. PI, in both meetings, would straight up refuse to answer direct questions when asked. I asked about committee/proposal information (timeline to submit proposal b/c its 6months between proposal and defense) and PI refused to answer questions, frequently just talking about something else literally, "what is the process for submitting my written proposal? If we do it by end of Jan., then I can defend in June" etc PI's response "How do you think you compare to other students...". This was after the first meeting which he ended abruptly by telling me to figure out what I want to do next because I may not even need the masters, which was his idea in the first place. 

After these two meetings DGS scheduled another meeting with me to ask how things went and to know the timeline that PI and I designed. I said we were unable to plan one, explained how the meetings went, and DGS was speechless for a minute. Then I kind of broke down and admitted that I didn't feel like I could trust him to be honest with me about preparation and procedure. Part of this was because the previous grad student, who was a year further into the program than me, felt the same way when she left early with her MS. The PI would not tell her whether he felt she was prepared or not, I found this out later. Anyway, I expressed my concern that even though it was just one semester longer, the PI and I would not be able to fix our communication problems (I was willing to, and we had a meeting where I said this was fixable, he agreed, but refused any further action) and this would impact the quality of my project and ability to prepare, as PI would not mentor or offer any kind of guidance. 

DGS expressed similar concerns and told me that the best thing for me was to find another mentor for next semester, do a short project, and leave in the spring with a non-thesis masters option. DGS is actually a lab I rotated through, and said was willing to work with me and have me write a review so that I can at least leave with a publication, which would not be possible were I to stay in the other lab. 

tl;dr Relationship with PI has deteriorated further and DGS recommends that I find a new mentor for the spring semester and leave with a non-thesis masters. 

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I'm sorry to hear that things have not improved :(

I am surprised that the DGS isn't taking your side more strongly here. Maybe now that you know this about the department, you might not want to stay for a PhD anymore, but finding a new mentor in order to graduate with a MS is not a very supportive action by your DGS. I think if you do want to stay for the PhD, you should have more support from your DGS! My opinion is that once a school accepts you as their student, they (the department as a whole) are responsible for providing the support to see you through your PhD, especially if your PI fails at doing this. The DGS should be helping you talk to other professors in the department and potentially start over as a new student in a new lab. 

I think if you want to stay here for the PhD, you should push for your right to stay and complete your degree as planned. This is a good time to push this because they are considering new students at this stage. It would be easier for a professor to take you into their lab instead of accepting a new applicant. And, if you are serious about wanting to stay, you should push harder on the DGS (although still keep it professional because you'll want a letter if you go elsewhere) because the worst that could happen is that they say no and then you'll know you don't want to stay another 4+ years at this department anyways. 

Just my two cents.

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1 hour ago, TakeruK said:

I am surprised that the DGS isn't taking your side more strongly here. Maybe now that you know this about the department, you might not want to stay for a PhD anymore, but finding a new mentor in order to graduate with a MS is not a very supportive action by your DGS. I think if you do want to stay for the PhD, you should have more support from your DGS! My opinion is that once a school accepts you as their student, they (the department as a whole) are responsible for providing the support to see you through your PhD, especially if your PI fails at doing this. The DGS should be helping you talk to other professors in the department and potentially start over as a new student in a new lab. 

I don't know, I think the DGS is doing what they should be doing. The option of staying with the current PI seems like a bad choice, so switching advisors is probably the right move. I don't think it's reasonable to expect the DGS to find the student a new advisor; I think it's the student's responsibility -- and it is in their interest -- to forge a new relationship themselves and not have it enforced from the outside, at least as a first step. So at this point, if the student can find an arrangement that works without outside involvement, I think that's better. I do agree that once a department accepts a student, it should be its responsibility to see him/her through, but that can't mean that a DGS or chair forces a professor to take a student they don't want. The advisor needs to be comfortable with the student's work in order to sign off on it. If it ends up being that a student can't find anyone to advise them or support their work, unfortunately it may very well be that at that point the department has done all it can and the honest thing to do is tell the student that they need to leave the program and find a program that would be a better fit. Whether the program then awards the student some terminal degree is down to details that are probably beyond what this discussion needs to be about. 

1 hour ago, TakeruK said:

I think if you want to stay here for the PhD, you should push for your right to stay and complete your degree as planned. This is a good time to push this because they are considering new students at this stage. It would be easier for a professor to take you into their lab instead of accepting a new applicant. And, if you are serious about wanting to stay, you should push harder on the DGS (although still keep it professional because you'll want a letter if you go elsewhere) because the worst that could happen is that they say no and then you'll know you don't want to stay another 4+ years at this department anyways. 

Again, I don't think the student has a right to graduate with a PhD just because they were accepted to the program, even if everyone and everything happens in good faith. You do have a right to be supported and to be advised and if the program can't do that for you, you can try to work with it to fix it, or you can choose to leave. If you do stay for a PhD, I do agree that now is the time to figure that out because around now is when acceptance and funding decisions are made and you don't want to be left out. It's tricky because if you start over with a new PI, it's not clear that either of you will have enough of an idea of whether the advising situation is comfortable and successful for both parties. But it's definitely something to bring up now and to stay on top of. I do kind of wonder at this point if there are enough people around that you get along with, OP, so you can form a committee and have enough support, beyond whoever your advisor ends up being. I am not sure that is the case, and if not, that's not the right choice for a PhD program for you. 

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@fuzzylogician: I definitely agree with you, especially on the point that the DGS/department shouldn't "force" a professor to take a student and it shouldn't be a sure thing that every student admitted must leave with a PhD. Perhaps I worded the last comment too strongly! And maybe it's just the way I interpreted the post, but it sounded a lot like the DGS isn't even going to try to help the student find a new advisor. To me, the suggestion that the DGS gave should be the last resort, not the first thing they suggest! I agree with you that the first best step is for the student to find a new advisor on their own, then the DGS might need to get involved to help facilitate things if the student is unable to get this happening. And if all that fails, then perhaps it is in everyone's best interest to move on and go elsewhere. 

(An example of how the DGS/department could/should help out without "forcing" anyone to take a student they don't want are things like having a departmental slush fund that pays for students that somehow end up without an advisor for a year---so maybe a professor didn't intend to take on the OP as a new student, but having an extra year to figure out funding might make the transfer go more smoothly etc.)

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I'm late to the party but I would be interested to hear what happened here.

Frankly, this department is giving me a bunch of red flags. The PI, from the get-go, he refused to meet with the OP outside of lab meetings once a week (which are usually group meetings, not individual advising and mentorship meetings). That's not adequate. Then, out of the blue, he pulls OP aside and tells him that he doesn't feel like OP is excited about the research and is worried about fit. He gave OP an ultimatum to fix it, but when the OP asked for how they could fix it, he dodged the question. He essentially told OP "You are doing something wrong, and I want you to fix it, but I am not going to tell you what you are doing wrong or what the conditions for success are."

It's true that some advisors are like that, but to me that doesn't excuse the behavior - it's bad advising. I wouldn't want to make this relationship work. I wouldn't want a PI who is constantly questioning my commitment to and fitness for graduate school on the basis of some shadowy, unknown criteria. He's going to be impossible to please, and I never wanted to feel like a supplicant to an angry god as a PhD student.

Secondly, while I don't feel the DGS should be forcing professors to work with students they don't like, I do think the DGS should be holding graduate education (including advisement and mentorship) to a base level standard of adequacy. Their job is to ensure quality graduate education, is it not? A really good DGS goes to bat when professors are being unreasonable. If he doesn't want to work with the student, that's fine; but as a professor his responsibility is to be up front with the student ("I don't think our working relationship is a good fit; you should find another advisor to work with. Smith or Jones might be good.") rather than being vague and shady. And I do feel like it is the DGS's responsibility to help you find another advisor if your current one doesn't want to work with you anymore. Maybe she can't foist you onto someone, but she should at least be able to provide suggestions and/or investigate who is able to take on additional students.

Anyway, what was the outcome? If it were me I think I would leave with the non-thesis master's and go to another department where people aren't crazy or helpless. But if you are super happy where you are and you otherwise like the department, it might be worth exploring things with New Prof and maybe poking at some other professors to see what shakes out, if you still have time.

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Hi,

First thank you, everyone who replied. Your comments were helpful and allowed me to gain some outside perspective on my situation. Also, because I wasn't clear, I am a female. Just wanted to clarify because some of the pronouns got a little confusing while reading the longer replies. 

Anyway, I have joined another lab for the spring semester and the plan is to leave with a non-thesis masters in May. I have not officially switched to the masters program yet, as my new advisor said they wanted to give it 5-6 weeks and reevaluate. New advisor and I work well together and communicate amazingly well. It really is light and day compared with Old Lab and Old Advisor. I am still upset and coming to terms with how things turned out, but at least it was an enlightening experience and I know what to look for once I apply to phd programs elsewhere. 

Of course, I'm still hoping in the back of my mind that I somehow win the NSF GRFP and can, therefore, talk a lab into accepting me for a phd. (There are a few here that I was interested in as a first year but they didn't have funding back then). 

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On 2/27/2017 at 6:01 PM, Midwest_newbie said:

Another update: the lab I joined with plans of leaving May 2017 has now changed to my staying in the phd program. Yay!

Congrats that is super awesome! Definitely this is the thing that scares me the most about going to a new university where no one knows you versus staying at your undergrad school where you know you are supported. Huge fear of mine moving forward, but I am so glad to read through that and hear it went well! 

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On 11/30/2016 at 11:31 PM, quickstudy said:

 Quite a passive-aggressive tactic, I know, but unfortunately quite common.

 

That isn't passive aggressive behavior. It is bad communication and ineffective teaching.

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